Why is This One Little Word So Confusing?

Reflexive Pronouns in Mandarin

I remember the first Chinese song I learnt to sing at karaoke. gǎi biàn zì jǐ 改变自己 (change self) by the American/Taiwanese singer Wang Leehom. The title was a bit confusing for me though. Does it mean “change myself” or “change yourself”? The reflexive pronoun zì jǐ 自己 just means “self” and could be used to refer to the first, second or third person. Which one is it?

This is a great example of how Chinese is so highly contextual. Mandarin is a pro-drop language, which means pronouns can just be dropped whenever they are clear from context. It’s only if you listen to the whole song that you realise Wang Leehom is singing about himself, and so gǎi biàn zì jǐ must mean “[I] change [my]self”.

Similarly, when I was in the gym the other day and asked a guy if he needed me to spot him on the bench press he replied bú yòng, kě yǐ kào zì jǐ 不用,可以靠自己 (no need, can rely self). The sentence kě yǐ kào zì jǐ could be translated as “[I] can do it [my]self” or “[you] can do it [your]self”. It’s only the context that makes it clear.

As if all this pronoun dropping wasn’t enough, it can sometimes it can be difficult to know who the reflexive pronoun is referring to even if the pronouns haven’t been dropped from the sentence. This is because zì jǐ 自己 often refers to the person at the very beginning of the sentence, whereas English reflexive pronouns usually refer to the person immediately before them. Confused? Let’s take a look at some examples.

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I was reading a novel in which the police were trying to defuse a ticking bomb but there were only a couple of minutes left so the duì zhǎng 队长 (head of the bomb squad) told the other policeman to leave. The following sentence was:

tā zhī dào duì zhǎng zài bǎo hù zì jǐ 他知道队长在保护自己 (he knew that the head of the bomb squad was protecting himself)

To an English speaker this could be awfully confusing. The head of the bomb squad is telling everyone else to leave and is staying behind to defuse the bomb by himself with two minutes to go before it blows up. How on earth is he protecting himself?

This is because in the Chinese sentence zì jǐ 自己is referring back to the 他 at the beginning of the sentence. In the English sentence “himself” refers to “the head of the bomb squad”, it cannot refer to the “him” at the beginning of the sentence. To translate this sentence into English we therefore need to translate the Chinese reflexive pronoun zì jǐ 自己 as the English object pronoun “him”.

tā zhī dào duì zhǎng zài bǎo hù zì jǐ 他知道队长在保护自己 (he knew that the head of the bomb squad was protecting him)

later on in the novel one of the female characters turns round and is surprised to see the police detective luò fēi 罗飞 standing there.

tā kàn dào luò fēi zhàn zài zì jǐ miàn qián 她看到罗飞站在自己面前

In this sentence an English speaker might at first be tempted to translate zì jǐ as “himself”. However, the sentence “she saw Luo Fei standing in front of himself” doesn’t really make sense unless Luo Fei is dead and having some sort of ghostly out of body experience. From context we know it means “she saw Luo Fei standing in front of her.” Once again, the Chinese sentence uses the reflexive pronoun where English cannot.

It’s important to remember that zì jǐ does not always refer to the subject of the whole sentence, like it does in the two examples above. Exactly who it is referring to is often highly contextual. For example, the sentence wǒ kàn dào tā gēn zì jǐ shuō huà 我看到他跟自己说话 would not (under normal circumstances) make sense if translated as “I saw him talking to me” and so must therefore be “I saw him talking to himself”.

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